What You Can Get Away With » Media

(Or, ‘Nick’s writing complicated posts about Doctor Who again, so look away now if you’re only here for the politics)

First up, if you haven’t already, go read Teatime Brutality’s post ‘Canon and sheep shit: Why we fight‘ which explains why there’s no such thing as a Doctor Who ‘canon’. Second, if you haven’t seen The Night Of The Doctor yet, you probably should before you read further, as there will likely be spoilers.

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I wrote on a forum a couple of weeks ago, when the first rumours about Peter Capaldi becoming the Doctor that “I’d love it to be Capaldi, but I don’t think we live in an awesome enough universe for that to happen.” Obviously, I was wrong and the universe remains an awesome and wonderful place where things like that can happen.

Obviously, I’m excited that he’s going to be playing the Doctor and not just because it means that the actor playing the Doctor is older than me again. I only discovered recently just how much of a fan of the series he is, beating even David Tennant for fannish credentials, but the reason his name got me excited was that he’s an incredibly talented actor. While he’s become famous as Malcolm Tucker, he has a huge range as an actor, and most of his roles have been a long way away from the rage and anger of Tucker. Indeed, having seen his interview on Sunday, and had a look back at some of his other roles, it’s clear how much of a performance Tucker is. Tucker’s voice is a deeper and more guttural than Capaldi’s own, and his physicality is completely different.

In combination with his comment on Sunday about not quite seeing the Twelfth Doctor in the mirror yet, I think it would be foolish to try and assume what sort of Doctor he will portray. The Doctor is a very interesting part for an actor, as a lot of different approaches to it have worked over the years. At one extreme, there’s the Tom Baker approach, where the character becomes a larger version of the actor, while at the other, there’s the style that Patrick Troughton pioneered of creating a distinct character and playing that role. I think the new series started with Eccleston taking the Troughton approach, but Tennant and Smith had moved it closer to the Baker style, but Capaldi’s comments make me think the pendulum will be swinging back.

The other thought that occurs to me is that by the time his first proper series as the Doctor starts (around Autumn next year, I believe, after the regeneration at the end of this year), the new series will have been around for almost nine and a half years. To put that into perspective, that’s the time in the original series between An Unearthly Child and The Green Death and longer than the gap between the TV movie and Rose. With a whole new take on the Doctor and a chance for everyone to recharge and think about how to take the series forward for the next fifty years, don’t be surprised if the whole series has a different feel when the Twelfth Doctor’s in the TARDIS.

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Me, elsewhere

You can see my summer reading choices at Liberal England.

In memory of Mel Smith

Possibly the only Alas Smith and Jones sketch to involve Colchester:

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YouGov have done a survey asking people their opinions about Doctor Who and what characteristics they want to see in the next Doctor. As politics and Doctor Who are two of this blog’s continuing obsessions, I couldn’t resist writing about it – and this post becomes even more ‘my entire blogging history in one post’ if I tell you I’m doing it while I wait for the highlights of the Criterium du Dauphine cycling to come on TV.

(Insert your standard disclaimer here about polling not necessarily being accurate, margins of error, just a bit of fun etc)

It’s perhaps not surprising that Lib Dem voters are more likely to be Who fans than supporters of other parties (see Alex Wilcock’s ‘How Doctor Who Made Me A Liberal‘ or my take on it here) but it’s nice to see it statistically confirmed – 41% of Lib Dem supporters are interested in the series, compared to 34% of Labour, 29% of Tories and just 26% of UKIP supporters.

I’m actually surprised to see David Tennant topping the ‘favourite Doctor’ part of the survey by quite a convincing margin – 43% to Tom Baker’s 16% and Matt Smith’s 14%. He won a similar DWM poll while he was the Doctor, but he’s now three years out of the role, which does indicate that he may well have replaced Tom Baker as the public’s image of the Doctor. (He is one of my favourites, but if I’d have been polled, I’d have doubled Patrick Troughton’s support amongst Lib Dems.) However, fun confirmation of stereotypes comes with Jon Pertwee getting his highest ratings from UKIP and Tory voters, but absolutely no support from Lib Dems. It’s possibly because he’s the most ‘establishment’ of all the Doctors – no other Doctor spent so much time hanging around the military – though one could also argue that the Pertwee era was full of images of a proudly independent Britain with its own space programme and big energy projects. As soon as he went, Tom Baker’s first story saw international sovereignty being pooled to protect nuclear codes in ‘Robot’ and the English countryside, if it was real at all, was depicted as being full of androids.

There’s also interest in the questions about what characteristics the new Doctor should have. Even without the breakdown by party, I’m surprised to see that the population of Britain are relatively open to the idea of a different Doctor. The only characteristics that get bare majority support are British (54%) and male (52%) – and male only gets about 40% support from Labour and Lib Dem voters. That gives me hope that when – and I believe it is a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’, even if it’s not this time – we get a female Doctor, the general populace will be much more inclined to accept it and see how it goes than certain Who fans believe they will be.

Other figures almost look as though they were created by the stereotype-o-matic such as 50% of UKIP voters thinking it’s important the Doctor is white, compared to 5% of Lib Dems, though I’m confused by a couple of spikes (which might just be statistical noise because of small sample size) – Tories are more likely to want the Doctor to be attractive, while Labour voters are more likely to want the actor to already be a household name.

My general position is that I want the next Doctor to be played by someone interesting – I’ve not been the biggest fan of the last three years of the series, but I think Matt Smith’s done a good job with some weak material and has been very good when he gets a good script – and most of the actors who I’ve thought could be interesting Doctors have been different from the norm. (That said, I do edge towards the ‘I’d like a woman Doctor, but not one written by Steven Moffat‘ position) If it was up to me, I’d be trying to persuade one of Adrian Lester, Maxine Peake, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Naomie Harris or Ben Whishaw to take the role – but it’s not up to me, so I just get to wait, watch and see what comes next. Hopefully, I’ll still be around for the 100th anniversary, when all this speculation will seem as quaint and irrelevant as ‘can you really get another completely different actor to play the Doctor?’ was in 1966.

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I haven’t been doing weekly posts about it this series, but I am keeping the HIGNFY gender bias spreadsheet updated – you’ll normally find the updated version of it available on that link by Saturday lunchtime after a show.

The problem is finding something new to say about it after every show, when the figures stay resolutely the same. 23.83% of guests overall (25% this season) and 22.46% of guest hosts have been women, and last week’s show was the 109th one with all-male guests since the last time all the guests were female. Still, we should have the first female host of the season (Mel Giedroyc) next week.

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As the new series of HIGNFY started on Friday, I’ve updated the spreadsheet I created last year about the gender of guests. You can find it by clicking here, and I’ll endeavour to update it every week during this series.

The overall figures remain pretty much as they did through last year – overall 23.49% of guests and 22.83% of guest hosts have been women and you still have to go back to 1997 to find a show where all the guest spots were taken by women. There hasn’t been an all-male show in 2013 yet, though – we men will just have to console ourselves with the 100+ shows that have been all-male since then.

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One of the first books I read this year was Drew Westen’s The Political Brain, which I’ve found absolutely fascinating. Westen is a clinical psychologist and a supporter of the Democrats in the US, who had been progressively frustrated over a period of years by the party’s inability to fight back against the Republican method of doing politics. In The Political Brain, he sets out to examine politics and political communications from a psychological perspective, and to propose ways in which Democrats can fight back.

Westen’s main hypothesis (as reflected in the book’s subtitle) is that emotion is a key component in successful political communication. One of the reasons Al Gore and John Kerry lost their elections was because they didn’t connect emotionally with the American public while George W Bush did. Both men believed that they had the right answers to the questions that faced America, but they were too busy convincing the voters of that case intellectually to make the case emotionally. The Republicans, on the other hand, exploited emotional appeals – especially to fear – perfectly, and thus swung the elections their way.

However, Westen isn’t arguing for Democrats to ape the Republicans in fear-mongering and demagoguery. What he does instead is look at significant academic research into how the brain works to explain why certain types of messaging are effective and others aren’t. He doesn’t argue that Democrat policy should change, merely the way that policy is communicated. The book was originally written in 2006, so there’s very little mention of Obama in it, but the point is made effectively in looking at Bill Clinton. Because he could make a powerful emotional connection with voters either through TV or one-on-one, people felt an emotional connection to him they didn’t feel to his opponents or rivals. (One thing I’ve heard in various accounts of people meeting Clinton is that no matter how trivial the encounter, he always gives the impression that listening to that person is the most important thing in the world to him at that moment)

One of Westen’s principal arguments is that the core of any political communication has to be a narrative about the party and/or the candidate, and that while having a list of worthy policies is important, they need to fit into an overall framework. However, that doesn’t mean that just any narrative will do. Westen sets out a set of rules for effective narratives that I think often get missed by people who appear to have read the book. A narrative can’t just be ‘we’re for nice things and against nasty things’ and it shouldn’t designed to appeal to everyone. Any compelling narrative has the structure of a story, and that needs antagonists to work. For instance, Westen points out that the successful Republican narrative in the US relies on demonising a ‘liberal elite’ who want to stop the brave Republicans from making America great again. Westen argues – quite persuasively – that Democrats need to take the fight back to the Republicans, though that doesn’t mean going in the same low vein as them.

In that spirit, he provides notable examples of what defeated Democrat candidates could (and should) have said in some famous circumstances. As he points out, the responses of candidates like Dukakis, Gore and Kerry to attacks on them were factually correct but didn’t connect emotionally. This was originally written and published before the 2008 US election but one key to Obama’s victory then and last year was that he was willing to take the fight to the Republicans.

Westen explains that our brains work by making networks of associations between people, concepts, images and ideas. Political communication needs to activate certain networks to be more effective, and the most effective way to activate networks is through the use of emotion. People are mostly making emotional judgements about candidates and parties based on what they perceive as their narrative long before they make ones based on specific policy points.

What’s also important about the book is that Westen writes as an academic who’s moved into politics, not as a political operative trying to justify his viewpoints and angle for more work. Usually, when he makes a point about the effectiveness or not of certain tactics and language, it’s because there’s evidence to back it up, and his wide knowledge of psychology means he can bring in studies that weren’t explicitly political but have an important bearing on the subject.

I heartily recommend reading The Political Brain to anyone with an interest in politics and political campaigning (and buying it through the link above makes me a few pennies) but it’s also prompted some thoughts on British politics in the light of it. It’s clear that there are people in British politics who’ve read The Political Brain – and some of them have even understood it – but a lot of it hasn’t broken into regular discussion yet.

I was going to take a look at some of Westen’s points and how they relate to British politics in this post, but it’s already getting quite long, and I think they’re best put into a separate post to follow this before it turns into a book in itself.

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Lib Dem Voice have produced a remake of the old ‘where is the British West Wing?’ posts of a few years ago by asking ‘where is the British Borgen?

(The answer to that question is ‘waiting for someone to forget the poor ratings previous dramas about politicians got or for someone to come up with a good story’, by the way)

However, the part that struck me (from Alistair Campbell’s tweet that kicked it off and used repeatedly in the following discussions) is the idea that there aren’t ‘pro-politics’ dramas on British TV. The problem with that belief is that there are lots of incredibly political dramas on British TV, it’s just that they’re not about politicians. Campbell et al believe that ‘politics’ solely relates to ‘what we do’ – usually white men in suits arguing with each other – whereas politics actually covers a much wider range of interactions between people and power.

For instance, Jimmy McGovern’s stories are usually intensely political, showing what effect the system and its policies can have on people, but they rarely feature actual politicians. Spooks – particularly in the early series – often addressed the fundamental political issue of where the balance between liberty and security should be struck, and how dangerous it can be to give the state too much power. Even Holby City and Casualty have regularly shown the effects of changes to NHS policy over the years.

‘Political drama’ does not have to mean ‘drama about politicians’ – indeed, making it about politicians can get in the way of making a political point. The old adage of storytelling and scriptwriting is ‘show, don’t tell’, and a political drama needs to show the effects of the policies it’s looking at. Those effects aren’t normally felt within the corridors of the power (except sometimes changing who gets to walk them) but they are felt outside Whitehall and Parliament. Great storytelling is about great characters and the way they deal with the world around them, and the story of someone dealing with the consequences of a political decision and how it affects their life is normally a much more interesting story to watch than the debates that led up to that policy being enacted.

Politicians forget that they’re just a part of the political process and that their little bubble of process isn’t the entirety of it. Britain has a long and fine tradition of drama that’s pro-politics, and doesn’t flinch from showing the effects policy has on people’s lives. To ignore that, and imagine that politics is only important when it’s about politicians is another reflection of how the practice and the reality of politics are becoming completely separated in this country.

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In the category of ‘small, but annoying, errors’ we have this from the Guardian:

Obama will make history in another way on Monday, becoming the first US president to be sworn in four separate times.

THat should be ‘the first since Franklin Roosevelt’, of course, who got his four inaugurations the old-fashioned way by being elected four times.

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